T he last time I was in the space now occupied by Oriole 9 was years ago, when it was a classic funky Woodstock grocery-café where you’d go for your organic this and that and grab a cup of coffee while you were at it. More recently, chef-caterer (and now chocolatier) Oliver Kita operated there in his more upscale café, Heaven, but I missed that incarnation.
Last summer, new owners Nina Paturel and Pierre-Luc Moeys (he’s the chef) opened after gutting and transforming the place. Don’t be put off by the entrance: doors from the sidewalk open onto a long wide ramp — an architectural oddity left over from the days when carts backed into the building. Once through the second doors, you’re in the lounge of the restaurant, where deep persimmon-colored walls and cushy leather couches and chairs evoke a night-clubby mood. (Assuming you go at night; during the day, people like to sit and drink coffee there.)
Usually, surroundings are a tip-off to the kind of dining you’re in for, but here the clues are confusing. The décor is a combination of casual spareness and luxury. A brick pillar and coffee station serve as a visual divider between the lounge area and the dining room; in the latter, a long, communal wooden table for 12 sits in the middle of the space, flanked by other tables for two or four. In each corner, large round tables nestle against semicircular banquettes, which are scattered with beaded and embroidered pillows. Floors are wood, walls are painted in rich shades of orange and red with gold trim, and lights are low, so the mood is mellow. We were feeling hedonistic, and settled in at one of the inviting banquettes.
As we looked over the menu, our pleasant waitress brought squares of focaccia, along with some good olive oil and a few succulent olives (which were served in the kind of porcelain spoons used to sip soup in Chinese restaurants). A stylish and promising beginning.
The dinner menu, which changes frequently, is ambitious and sophisticated, a mix of modern takes on American fare with European influences. The mostly European wine list is a good match for the cuisine — and fairly priced, too, with bottles ranging between $20 and $70. We settled for a Chateau D’Arcins Haut Medoc, which was smooth and well-balanced.
One starter we tried was Thai crabcakes with a sesame crisp. They were nicely spiced, with clean flavors, a very pleasant texture and a good balance of crab and filler. A wasabi yogurt added plenty of zest without being so hot that it curled your toes. On the side were delicate sprouts and some pickled napa cabbage that was almost effervescent in its moist, crunchy freshness. It was a well-thought-out, satisfying palate stimulator.
Another appetizer, a prosciutto, Manchego and brandied fig salad, was good, but less of a hit. Strips of tangy Manchego cheese lay atop lightly dressed baby salad greens, but the prosciutto was scarce, and the brandy harsh enough to overpower the sweetness of the figs. Oddly, it left delicious little brandied fig-juice puddles on the plate that I enjoyed mopping up, so perhaps the combination just needed more time to gel before it was served.
All the food was presented attractively on square or rectangular plain-white dishes, but the venison tenderloin with black rice and pears poached in red wine was a particularly sensuous display. Wonderfully moist, tender slices of pink, medium-rare venison were fanned across a bed of black rice, while a pair of lovely little Seckel pears — painted with a deep wine reduction — anchored each side of the plate. It proved to be every bit as good as it looked. The chef cleverly played the delicate sweetness of fruit against the rich gamey notes in the venison for a truly enjoyable mix of flavors and textures — really first-rate.
A beef tenderloin with bearnaise sauce was also nice to look at, especially if the sight of roasted fingerling potatoes (a side that night) pleases you. I love them, and these were perfect, roasted just enough to bring out their light earthy taste without losing the soft give of their skins. The medallion of beef was cooked just as I’d ordered it. Despite the scoldings of my foodie friends, I like my beef done medium-well, so a sauce is always welcome to replace the juices I’ve forced the chef to cook out, and the bearnaise served the purpose perfectly. Still-firm braised asparagus spears were another tasty accompaniment.
Midway through dinner, staff members took a large, horizontal abstract painting down from the wall, and next thing we knew they were projecting a movie in the empty space. It was Thursday movie night! We got several minutes of Amelie, en francais, before the staff decided that that was quite enough of that and started it over again, this time with subtitles. There was no need to dim the lights, and the soundtrack was audible but not intrusive if you’d rather talk. Dinner and a movie, all in one! What a good idea — especially if you’ve bagged a comfy seat with lots of pillows. (Owners say it may be just a winter event, though, so if this would be a big draw for you, check ahead.)
The two desserts we tried, Dutch apple pie and a double chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, were both wonderfully grown-up in their sweetness: neither gooey nor cloying, but with a hefty dollop of cream for those with a sweet tooth.
Nina Paturel is a